English woman’s diary vividly portrays honour of the 1916 rebels

Recorded in a copybook is a telling account of the Rising and the rebels’ principles, writes Jane Maxwell

English woman’s diary vividly portrays honour of the 1916 rebels

‘What faith Pearse must have had! He said that it was only by a sacrifice of blood Ireland’s soul could so awaken and he made it against all common sense, all advice.’

Thus wrote Nancy Campbell in her diary of events in Dublin in 1916.

She was deeply moved and inspired by the motives and behaviours of the men who fought in the streets of the capital a century ago this week. What makes her fervour all the more interesting is the fact that she was English.

Nancy Maude met the poet Joseph Campbell during her visit to Ireland in 1909; she was the daughter of a colonel in the British army and grand-daughter of the Crown Equerry to Queen Victoria, he was a penniless Irish Catholic poet.

Her family strongly opposed their proposed marriage and when the wedding went ahead in 1910, Nancy became completely estranged from her family.

The couple set up house together in 1911 and their home near Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, became a gathering place for young poets.

The Campbell family presented Nancy’s and Joe’s personal papers to the library in Trinity College in the 1990s. Among them was a school copybook in which Nancy recorded, with great fluency and immediacy, her very immediate experience of the 1916 Rising.

What is most remarkable about this diary is the enthusiasm with which she spoke of the high principles and impeccable behaviour of the insurgents, from going to confession before going into battle, to their insistence on writing receipts for money taken to purchase necessities while occupying the Four Courts.

St Stephen’s Green, where Nora Costigan found herself locked in as rebels took over at the start of the Rising.
St Stephen’s Green, where Nora Costigan found herself locked in as rebels took over at the start of the Rising.

The letter opens as follows: “The first we knew of the Rising was that the letters and the papers did not come on Tuesday morning. The wildest rumours were the only news.

“We heard the GPO was in the hands of the Volunteers.

“Of course one had to find out more so we decided to drive into Bray that afternoon, and Joseph to go on into Dublin if he could get a train. (Some said there were trains and some that the lines were all up).

“Joseph, Gilly [their son] and I started off, Bray looked much as usual, except people were talking in the street.

“‘My heart is with them this day in the city,’ we heard one man say.

“At the station, we heard the Harcourt St train was running but Westland Row was not.”

Later, she tells of how Joseph helped a dying Volunteer while under fire. The wounded man had been hit inside St Stephen’s Green and collapsed on a seat inside the railing.

Together with another man, Joseph Campbell tried to get in, advising his wife to get away to a station as soon as she could, with volleys of fire going off “from one couldn’t see where.” She and Gilly were approaching the corner of Harcourt St on their way to the train when more firing started just overhead.

“I saw a motor turn back and make off down Harcourt Street, and everyone scurry into doorways,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Joseph and another man had hoisted their handkerchiefs on sticks and gone to the park railing as all the gates were barricaded. He got over and after moving the barricades, the seat was carried off like a stretcher to Mercer’s Hospital with the wounded man on it.

“A priest turned up and gave the poor man absolution but Joseph thinks he was dead by the time they got him in — his jaw was shot away,” wrote Nancy.

She contrasted the spiritually impoverished “public school” version of honour, evident in the behaviour of the British troops, with the chivalric honour — the “true human democracy” — of the Irish side.

“They were all prepared for months — the leaders at any rate — I hear, for death (they took communion before they started) in the GPO.

“And elsewhere they were kneeling at prayer and being confessed (the priests were grand the way they risked their lives among them) all through the fighting,” she wrote.

“All the prisoners they took were treated with every consideration — there was no class or creed or sex among them — they fought almost, it seems to me, as spirits might have fought.”

Jane Maxwell is principal curator in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library in Trinity College Dublin. This article has been adapted from her entry in Trinity’s blog, Changed Utterly, which told the story of different experiences of 1916 from papers in its archive. www.tcd.ie/Library/1916/ 

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